Logo Copyright Laws

By Anna Assad

A person who holds a copyright to a logo is entitled to protection against reproduction, use and distribution without permission under U.S. copyright laws. A copyright allows the artist to take action against another person or business using the logo without her authorization. A copyright infringer—a party who uses the logo without permission—faces a civil judgment, fines and even jail time. A logo must qualify as a design under U.S. copyright laws for protection.

Covered Logos

A unique logo with "sufficient authorship" is eligible for protection under copyright laws, according to the U.S. Copyright Office. "Sufficient authorship" means the logo is artistically creative, such as an original drawing, and not simply one letter or a common symbol or shape. A logo may be eligible for both trademark protection and copyright protection. Logo trademark registration, handled through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, protects a design the public identifies with a specific business or service.

Start of Protection

The logo's designer or his employer—if he created the logo as part of his job—may file an application for copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. Only one registration is needed for the logo as long as the logo design is substantially the same on all products. An artist does not have to register the logo with the office for protection. If he displays the logo to the public or offers the logo in a sale format—for example, on a water bottle for sale to the public—logo copyright protection begins on the date of display or sale. In either case, the logo must be unique and not substantially similar to another existing logo or artistic design, per Sections 1301 and 1302 of Chapter 13 of U.S. copyright laws. Protection runs for ten years after the registration date or the date the logo was first displayed or offered for sale.

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Infringement occurs when a party other than the artist or copyright registrant uses the logo without permission and for profit. For example, a person making products for sale with a logo copyrighted to another person without permission is committing infringement. However, reproducing the logo for educational reasons, such as in a classroom lesson, is not infringement under U.S. copyright laws. If a person unknowingly uses a copyrighted logo on a product, he's not guilty of infringement.

Civil Infringement Remedies

A court may use restraining orders or injunctions—a court order forbidding a party from performing an act—to protect a copyrighted logo. If a registrant proves another party violated a logo copyright, the registrant is entitled to money damages as determined by the court. The court decides the amount; at the time of publication, the maximum award is the greater of $1 for each logo copy illegally used or $50,000. As an alternative, the registrant can ask for the money the infringer made off the logo, but he's responsible for proving the amount of sales the infringer made.

Infringement Criminal Charges

Criminal sentences are possible if a person infringes a logo's copyright to make money or makes one or more copies of the logo in a 180-day period with a total retail value of at least $1,001. A person who knowingly prepares or sets up a copyrighted logo for distribution over a computer network for profit may face a criminal sentence. Criminal penalties for logo copyright infringement vary by the type of infringement and the value the court assigns the registrant's loss. Any prior copyright infringement offenses the infringer has also affect criminal sentencing. For example, a first offender who produced copies that totaled at least $1,001 in retail value but not more than $2,499 faces a maximum jail sentence of one year and a fine as decided by the court. A second offender faces a sentence of up to six years and a fine for the same offense.

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How to Copyright a Logo on Shirts

As established under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, copyright promotes creativity by giving creators exclusive rights to profit from their work and protecting it against infringement. As the Copyright Office explains, this protection extends to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, such as a book, movie, painting, and even a design printed on a T-shirt. However, not every logo on a tee is eligible for copyright protection.

Logo & Trademark Rules in the US

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a trademark as "a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others." A logo is a distinctive graphic design element that may be included in a trademark. Trademarks are governed by both state and federal law.

What Is a Trademark's Duration?

A trademark identifies a particular manufacturer of goods, using a particular phrase, design or symbol. Designs, words or symbols used to identify a provider of services are called service marks, although there is no practical legal difference between trademarks and service marks. The mark ensures consumers can easily identify a particular company as the source of a product, and encourages brand loyalty. It also distinguishes and sets apart a particular company’s goods and services from others. This encourages companies to maintain consistent quality standards in the goods and services they produce. In some cases, trademark protection extends beyond words or symbols, encompassing "trade dress." For example, if a fitness drink company packaged its drinks in unique, triangle-shaped bottles, that shape would be entitled to trademark protection.


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